VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Port Coquitlam farm became ground zero in missing women case a year ago
By EMILY YEARWOOD-LEE
Wednesday, February 5, 2003
VANCOUVER (CP) - For Freda Ens, the significance of the property now at the centre of Vancouver's missing women case began to emerge the night one year ago when some frantic relatives of the women started phoning her.
"It was on the 11 p.m. news that there was something," recalled Ens, head of a victim-assistance program that had worked with some of the women's relatives since the early 1990s. "I had started getting calls so I turned the TV on and there was something, they were trying to figure out whose property it was."
What they heard last Feb. 6 was that police had raided a pig farm in suburban Port Coquitlam, one day after executing a search warrant for illegal weapons at the same property.
Soon investigators and heavy equipment would flood into the decrepit-looking acreage in what would become perhaps the most expensive forensic evidence-gathering exercise in Canadian criminal history.
But that was to come. Details would emerge with sometimes painful slowness.
Initially, the public learned that after the weapons search, the joint RCMP-Vancouver police task force investigating the missing women case got its own warrant.
The pig farm would become ground zero in the investigation of the disappearances of more than 60 women since the early 1980s.
It's co-owner, Robert (Willie) Pickton, was arrested and has since been accused of killing 15 women. A preliminary hearing began last month after a wrangle over the public cost for Pickton's defence.
Lawsuits have also been filed against Vancouver police on behalf of victims' families, alleging their initial investigation was mishandled.
Scores of investigators have been combing the site since the initial warrant was executed.
A makeshift tent memorial has been put up nearby and relatives of the missing women have visited the area.
Ernie Crey, whose sister's name is on the list of the missing, said his first impression of the farm was that it was a dark place.
"It seemed to be such a jumble," he said. "I think it had been raining. It just looked like such a dismal scene."
When the news first broke, the police task force would only say the site was a property of interest in the investigation into the disappearance of 50 women, mainly prostitutes from the city's
drug-infested Downtown Eastside.
The list has since grown to include more than 60 women, with the earliest disappearance believed to have happened in 1978 and 37 occurring in a five-year period from 1997 to 2001.
Erin McGrath, whose sister's name had long been included on the list, received a call about the investigation the same night as Ens, but went to bed with little idea of the information's significance.
She went to work the following day, only to be inundated with reporters' calls.
McGrath found herself crying in her manager's office.
"I was trying to cope with it all and it was just awful," she said.
The situation was "like a kick in the face," she said. "It was really hard to deal with my everyday reality."
Ens said she spent much of that day contacting relatives of some of the missing women. She went with a co-worker to see if she could get a clear view of the investigation site.
"I actually couldn't get out of the truck for a while," she said. "I was just stunned."
The farm had been sealed off. But even on that first day, dozens of officers, some dressed in white coveralls, could be seen hurrying around the site.
As the investigation continued, there were at one point as many as 90 officers and technicians working on the case, including anthropologists specialized in archaeology and human osteology.
By August, the cost of the ongoing investigation had topped $10 million.
While investigators continued to sift through the property, the public focus shifted in recent months to a courtroom in Port Coquitlam, where Pickton's preliminary hearing began in January and was expected to last several months.
Police have remained tight-lipped about the results of the investigation and their findings are now covered by the hearing's extensive publication ban.
Michael Klein, a Vancouver criminal lawyer, said it is not unusual for an investigation to continue even though charges have been laid and a hearing begun.
"It is not ideal," he added, "because you want to have some finality to it."
The introduction of new evidence can cause dealys and in some instances force retooling of the Crown and defence cases, said Klein.
The missing women case is unique, he said, "in terms of the vastness of it and the fact that essentially there is public acknowledgement on the part of the police that (they) are not done yet."
Few family members of the women have so far attended the hearing and none are present on some days.
Some have said it is too emotionally draining to attend, while others cited work.
But they have come together in other ways. Last Saturday, about 50 supporters carrying umbrellas to ward off the rain gathered in a parking lot across from the farm to mark the investigation's one-year anniversary.
Several people cast long glances at the property, where a house with a moss-covered roof and a decrepit barn stand surrounded by mountains of dirt.
A few went to look at the memorial tent, located across from the farm, which was decorated with flowers and pictures of the missing women.
The tent has become a bit like a shrine for some of the women's loved ones, said Wayne Leng, whose friend Sarah deVries disappeared in 1998.
Leng said he visited the area for the first time in November.
"I wanted to see if I could feel Sarah had been there," he said in a telephone interview from California.
He spoke of being inside the tent.
"I felt a warm feeling with that, not with the farm," he said. "I felt sad but I think I felt loved there."
McGrath said she had visited the area only once. It was not a comfortable place for her.
The anniversary of the on-site investigation of the Port Coquitlam property was not that important to her, she said. But she acknowledged it was significant because "we just have the anniversaries that are given to us.
"Like the anniversary of this (investigation) and the anniversary of when they went missing. We don't have any of when they died."
McGrath, 38, said she changed in some ways over the last year and she finds it easier to discuss the case.
"When the news first broke . . . people would kind of tiptoe around me and I had a lot of people not looking me in the eye," she said.
"A year later, I'm really comfortable with talking about it and people are comfortable talking about it."
Updated: August 21, 2016